So in Part One of this thrilling account of my professional life, we saw our hero (me) leave the safe harbour of an agency job in Cambridge and sail off into the sunset in the general direction of freelancing and Cheltenham. But we should probably scoot back a bit and find a bit more about the reasons why all this happened.
Necessity being the mother of invention
My then partner was also a graphic designer. He worked for a publishing company in Cambridge, and when that company relocated to London he was made redundant. While looking for another permanent job, he started to freelance to make ends meet.
And he hated it.
I’d lie awake at night, thinking of all the things he could do to get more work. I sifted through articles on the net, dreamt up strategies and business plans and methods of getting clients. I passed all my wondrous findings on to him which I think he found a) massively irritating and b) of no use whatsoever. The fact is, he wasn’t the sort of person who’s suited to freelancing. A lot of people prefer to be given their work at 9am, knock off at 5.30 and get a regular, guaranteed amount of money a month. He was one of those. He disliked having to charm people, having to do the admin and the accounts, but most of all I believe he disliked the unpredictability of it all. I, on the other hand, was getting big ideas and itchy feet.
After a few months of searching, he won a job based in Gloucester, art-editing a car magazine. We both wanted to move back west towards our respective homes (his was Cornwall), so I approached my boss and asked him if there was any chance he would employ me remotely. I thought this a good halfway house between safe but single in Cambridge and scary self-employment.
Tactical necessities and calculated risks
Boss thought about this for a week or so, and said no. But, he said, if you go freelance, I will give you enough work to keep you going every month, until you get other clients. I chewed a biro to smithereens working out exactly how much money I could live on, and lovely Boss agreed to cover a bit more than this amount, and lend me the mac I’d been working with in his office. I saved my pennies and bought a domain name, a scanner, a printer and all the other peripheries, read this, this and this, moved into a tiny one-bedroomed flat in one of Gloucestershire’s more hateful suburbs and registered as self-employed with the Inland Revenue on July 12th, 2003.
Cold-calling, selling yourself and other horrors
The next thing, obviously, was to get more clients. As a print designer I knew that printers occasionally were asked to recommend designers, so I called around all the local print businesses with my portfolio. One MD gave me a contact whom I followed up and ended up working with until I’d got successful enough to be able to decide that I’d had enough of his politics and, more importantly, his not paying me on time. I bought the local papers and called up every advertiser, asking if they needed any work doing. I had postcards printed and mailed them out. But my most important jobs came by word of mouth.
I’d started designing a magazine for CIO Connect via my old boss’s agency and another agency middleman. CIO Connect decided that they no longer wanted to work with the middleman and approached me directly. I discussed this with my old boss, and offered him a per-page management fee to offset some of what he’d lose with me working with CIO Connect directly. In the end he gave me his blessing to work on the magazine alone without him getting a cut, as it seemed less hassle for all involved. CIO Connect worked closely with another IT member organisation and, after a while, they decided to offer me their magazine, too.
Fields of clover and the sun on your face and other metaphors for success
About this time a salesperson from a large printing company called me up. He sold the printing of the magazines to CIO Connect and the other IT organisation, and wanted to meet me. He was thinking of going freelance, and could I offer him any advice? I told him what I could. We kept in touch: I would ask him for print quotes, he occasionally asked me for design advice.
By this stage the other half and I had moved to Bristol, and I remember the print consultant calling me and asking if I’d be interested working on some trade directories for a client of his which also happened to be the UK’s largest bathroom retailer. At the time the printer was putting it together and the process was a bit of a mess. Getting me to to the layout work would save time and money. He knew that I had a firm grasp of the reprographic process and that the artwork files I sent to press always passed the preflight, meaning an easier, swifter printing process. We both met the MD and I won the work. And more work. And more work. It seemed that once this client realised how effective good design can be they wanted me to do everything for them. This lasted a couple of years, until the bathroom company realised that they could probably justify employing a designer full-time, so we parted company, and I lost half of my income overnight. I scratched my head for a bit, redesigned my website, had more promotional postcards printed and started all over again. It’s unpredictable like that.
Anyway, the best advice I can give someone thinking of doing the same is this:
- Get good at your agency job. Confidence in dealing with clients is paramount. Get some solid work behind you so your portfolio impresses.
- Get good at economising. Know exactly how much you have coming in and going out every month. Save every spare penny; learn to go without. You’ll be glad of this in the first year or so of utter penury.
- Make a business plan. Read. Research. Learn about tax and accounts. Ground your dreams in reality as much as possible.
- Borrow as little money as you possibly can.
- Attitude is all. Want to please your clients.
- Know what people are looking for in a designer, and more importantly, what puts them off. A freelancer is potentially flaky as compared with an agency, so project an aura of relaxed reliability. They must believe you easy to work with or they won’t go near you. Accurate quotes, hitting deadlines and amenability are probably all more important than creative skills for most clients. Above all, your job is to make your clients’ lives easier. Never forget that.
- Creativity actually scares a lot of clients. Be very careful about revealing your superpowers until you’re sure your client is ready to experience them. It’s a sad fact that most businesses want to look like their competitors, but a bit different. Yes, really. Swallow your pride or starve.
- I’d recommend using an independent print consultant/purchaser. In my experience, printers don’t give the best prices or highest quality service to lowly freelancers. Print consultants buy a lot of print and therefore wield a lot more power, and for the little fat they add on top of the quote you’ll get a better service for your clients and piece of mind that things will be sorted swiftly when they inevitably go wrong.
- Enjoy the thrill of not knowing what happens next. Having said that, employment can be a lot riskier – you can be made redundant with four weeks’ notice. As a freelancer, if you lose a client you generally have a lot more time to adjust and work out your next move, plus you’ll already have a website and marketing materials ready to start charming the socks off potential clients all over again.
- When something goes wrong and it’s your fault, immediately own up to it and offer to put it right. Things go badly – that’s life. Taking control impresses people, and they learn they can rely on you in the bad times as well as the good.
- Learn time management. I’ve learned I’m more efficient if I work on one project a day until finished, rather than, say, spending two hours a day on each of three projects. Also learn that you’ll have time off in a pretty unpredictable way. Use this time for things like surfing, mooching around charity shops and drinking tea.
That’s all for now – I’ll add more if I think of any.
NB this piece was originally published on my blogger site and I thought it too good to leave it languishing there. Hope you agree, o wondrous readers.